Sunday, November 30, 2008

Chavez and no term limits

So not long after I criticize a media article for jumping to conclusions about Chávez wanting the chance at indefinite terms, he says he is now pushing for the reform. He announced it very quickly after local elections that produced mixed results for both sides, but by no means an electoral shift that promises a better outcome than the last time. This is especially true because now the only issue would be term limits, as opposed to including other issues that make it more palatable.

I am trying to think of any scenario that does not include desperation on his part, but none come to mind.


More Latin America Op-Eding

There has been a surge of published advice for Obama with regard to Latin America policy. Today's version comes from the San Francisco Chronicle, and mostly follows the main points of the Brookings Institution study.

I am repeating myself, but it is noteworthy how similar they all are. You must make reference to an "opportunity," in this particular case an "enormous" opportunity. Then you list some specific policy choices. Sometimes the policy choices are ridiculous (e.g. the NYT calling to bring the IMF into Latin America more deeply). Sometimes, as in this particular article, the policy choices are OK but the language is revealing for its assumptions about the dominant role the U.S. should play.

  • We want "cooperation" but this is our "traditional backyard" and so if China or Russia seeks trading partners, it represents "prowling" regardless of what Latin American leaders think.
  • The way to send a regional message of "cooperation" is to sign an FTA with Colombia, because it is critical for Obama to "morph" into a free trade advocate. Whether Latin American leaders believe Colombia to be the test case for cooperation is not explored.
  • Overall, we want "cooperation" but policy changes toward Cuba will create a "quiet storm of U.S. influence." How or why this is the case is not explained.
I will repeat myself some more, but it's important. In general, these opinions do indeed offer some useful policy prescriptions, and I hope many of them are pursued (especially with regard to Cuba, the drug war, and immigration). But if we truly have an "enormous opportunity" then let's be more bold, and rethink our relationship with the region as a whole. I have yet to see anyone suggest that.


Saturday, November 29, 2008

The War of the Pacific continues

Every so often, a news story pops up to remind us that the War of the Pacific, which officially concluded well over 100 years ago, simmers on. Last year it was Peru's effort to change the maritime border with Chile. Now we have a war of words:

In a video circulated by Chilean media this week, Peruvian army chief Edwin Donayre tells a social gathering: "The Chilean that enters doesn't leave or he leaves in a coffin; if there aren't enough coffins, they'll leave in plastic bags."

Foreign minister Jose Antonio Belaunde said Wednesday the government rejects Donayre's "verbal excesses."

It reminded of Mario Vargas Llosa's The Time of the Hero, as Peruvian military cadets were in a training exercise:

And the cadets of the first company would race forward like meteors, their fixed bayonets jabbing at the sky and their hearts filled with a tremendous rage as they trampled down the plants in the furrows--if only the plants were the heads of Chileans or Ecuadoreans, if only the blood would spurt out from under their boots, if only their enemies would die...


Friday, November 28, 2008

About Latin America

There has been a flurry of policy papers, reports, and editorials with suggestions for Latin America policy (just a few days ago, I took a look at the Brookings Institution). Today it is the New York Times' turn, with an editorial.

This editorial, like all the rest, emphasizes our "unique opportunity" to improve relations. But none of them offer much beyond bromides and well-worn policy recommendations. Yes, I agree that the embargo doesn't work, and I am very glad that this is now finally becoming conventional wisdom*. But we need to step back and really rethink relations.

From the NYT:

For starters, the Obama administration could gain a lot of good will by supporting more aid, mostly from the International Monetary Fund, for Latin American countries sideswiped by the financial meltdown.

I don't get it. We have a "unique opportunity" and start by inserting the IMF, which is ridiculously unpopular in Latin America? It moves on to "dialogue" and free trade. Worst of all, it spends several paragraphs on Hugo Chávez, evincing the same obsession with the Bush administration.

Any serious effort to take advantage of this "unique opportunity" should make sure it doesn't mention Hugo Chávez, who as an individual is irrelevant to a broad vision for Latin America policy. He is only relevant to the degree that he reflects divisions within the region that the United States government steadfastly refuses to acknowledge.

This refusal means that we continue to have blanket policies (especially free trade) that may or may not be appropriate in any given circumstance. If anything, we need to inject a more flexible mindset into policy making that recognizes difference. Our current stance immediately forces leaders into unnecessary defensive positions when they disagree on particular issues.

* Incidentally, studying how it became CW would be a fascinating research topic.


Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Bush and Latin America: The Search for a Fake Legacy

I assume there was a meeting at some point recently, where it was decided that everyone in the Bush administration should take every opportunity to explain how the president's Latin America policy is, well, amazing. There might even be a memo that says "Don't be shy about making the most ludicrous claims imaginable because someone might just believe it if we keep repeating it." (My last installment is here.) Now we have Condoleezza Rice, who makes two claims:

First, Bush "has helped countries in the region adopt more pragmatic policies."

Second, Bush "has broken through an age-old struggle about ideology in Latin America."

The sheer audacity of these claims is awe inspiring, as they come from one of the most ideological and unpragmatic administrations in the history of this country. I eagerly await the next claims.


Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Boring academic books

Maybe it's just me, but this made me laugh out loud (h/t Mr. Trend).


Venezuelan elections: news we can't use

Preoccupied by other things, I haven't bothered to post about the Venezuelan elections. It had occurred to me, though, that despite all the rhetoric leading up to the elections, the U.S. media seemed bored. State and local elections without violence aren't very exciting, and Hugo Chávez didn't say anything inflammatory. Ultimately, these elections don't change the political map of Venezuela much.

So this morning's piece from McClatchy caught my eye for its impressively hyperbolic perspective. These elections, we learn, are in fact the sign of "another titanic battle" as Chávez seeks a new referendum to get another presidential term. The evidence? "Analysts said Monday." It seems he quoted two analysts, one of them pollster and often Chávez critic Luis Vicente León.

Much of the rest of the article quotes opposition Venezuelan politicians, who argue that Chávez will be weakened politically because he will have to negotiate more and the drop in oil prices will slow his projects, neither of which offer support for the article's hypothesis. The only evidence presented is that Chávez candidates won more votes than Chávez did in the failed referendum, but that is apples and oranges from an electoral perspective. A vote for mayor doesn't translate into a vote for a national referendum on Chávez.

Does Chávez want another term? Yes. Will he push for a new referendum next year? Maybe. This article, however, doesn't help us understand the likelihood.


Monday, November 24, 2008

Rethinking U.S.-Latin American Relations

Today the Brookings Institution released a new report entitled, "Rethinking U.S.-Latin American Relations." The commission that put it together was co-chaired by Ernesto Zedillo and Thomas Pickering. It contains a variety of policy recommendations, though most (like stripping away restrictions against Cuba, albeit not the entire embargo) have been voiced quite a bit recently.

I must say that I agree with many of the report's recommendations. However, I find it lacking in imagination (I hate to say "vision" but that is what first came to mind). The prologue notes that the report is based on the following two propositions.

The countries of the hemisphere share common interests; and the United States should engage its hemispheric neighbors on issues where shared interests, objections, and solutions are easiest to identify and can serve as a basis for an effective partnership.

We have now reached Platitude Central.

In a 36 page document, the word "dialogue" came up 9 times. I didn't even bother counting "partnership" because there were too many. Given the recommendations, the general idea seems to be generating a lot of commissions, task forces, etc. to facilitate dialogue and partnership.

If it means to be serious about its goals, then this and related reports must first explicitly address the issue of difference. For example, the report pushes hemispheric economic integration. How do we achieve "dialogue" and "partnership" if other countries view this as contrary to their own economic interests?

Along similar lines, the report does not address what I consider a critical element in improving hemispheric relations: the acknowledgment of a massive gap between rhetoric and reality with regard to the state's role in the economy. "Partnership" must begin with the recognition that leadership is not based on talking market while nationalizing or partially nationalizing your own industries.

In other words, I don't see this study as "rethinking" much at all.


Sunday, November 23, 2008

President Bush hearts Latin America

Well, at least according to Dan Fisk, the National Security Council Senior Director for Western Hemisphere Affairs. The administration's overall message is one I've mentioned a number of times, namely that the Bush administration has had an incredibly positive relationship with Latin America but that it gets no credit.

So the gist of this particular press briefing is that the administration has been at the forefront of improving Latin American economies, pursuing social justice, improving security, and that Bush had a total of 350 phone calls and meetings (is this the diplomatic equivalent to a body count?). In sum:

So again, in terms of the President's record in the hemisphere, this is, again, I think, a good opportunity to remind people of that.

Let me just highlight some very specific areas where I do think that this administration has not only improved the relationship with the hemisphere, but has laid a very solid foundation that the new President can build upon.

This is, we can safely say, the core belief of the administration as it leaves office. We did a great job, and nobody gives us any credit. We honestly have no idea why no one likes us.


Saturday, November 22, 2008

Journalists in Ciudad Juárez

I heard this story about the murder of journalists in Ciudad Juárez on NPR this morning, and recommend it (looks like the audio isn't available for a few hours). Aside from the very sobering issue of journalist intimidation, there is the unfortunate reality that it is increasingly viewed as commonplace. Vendors arrive at murder scenes and make good money, while the atmosphere is almost festive.


Friday, November 21, 2008

Reading the tea leaves on immigration Part 2

I've been arguing that it is unlikely immigration reform will get tackled in the first year of the new administration. Here is some more support for that belief--Rahm Emanuel says that the administration will "throw long and deep," and go for "wholesale changes in health care, taxes, financial re-regulation and energy." Immigration is not in that list.

h/t King Politics


Thursday, November 20, 2008

Refreshing to hear

Tony Garza, the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, said the following in a speech:

"Mexico would not be the center of the cartel's activities, nor would it be experiencing these levels of violence, if it wasn't for the United States -- the major consumer of illegal drugs and the principal supplier of arms to the cartels."

The quicker we integrate that reality into our policies, the better. I do wish we had heard it more earlier.


U.S.-Bolivian relations

During his trip to the U.S., Evo Morales met with Dick Lugar, who released a statement that included:

We hope to renew our relationship with Bolivia, and to develop a rapport grounded on respect and transparency. In this regard, after appropriate and constructive official contacts, I hope that we will have a U.S. Ambassador in La Paz soon, and that we will look forward to having a Bolivian Ambassador here in Washington, D.C.,” Lugar said.
In the meeting, Lugar and President Morales also discussed the importance of the Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act (ATPDEA) which was suspended by President Bush.
“Lifting the suspension on the ATPDEA with Bolivia will strengthen the growing political and economic relationship between our nations and help bring new jobs and good will to the region,” Lugar said. Bolivians are concerned about the possibility of losing a market of $400 million dollars of manufactured Bolivian products that generate a significant number of jobs in Bolivia.

All to the good. The timing of a new administration is perfect for mending fences. Bad relations hurt Bolivia considerably, and so Morales should grab onto these kinds of statements to figure out a new relationship that asserts Bolivian sovereignty without shooting the country in the foot.


Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The center in Latin America

Following up on my post about Latinobarómetro, Sara Miller Llana at the Christian Science Monitor quotes me in an article about how the poll shows the strength of the center in Latin America. The headline "Quiet Rise of Latin America's Center" hits the nail on the head. In the U.S., mostly what we hear about is conflict. We get juicy quotes from Hugo Chávez, see a diplomat expelled from Bolivia, etc., and so we get the impression that the region is falling apart. Yet in fact more and more Latin Americans believe their democracies are working well, and that the future looks brighter than it used to.


Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Immigrants and the left in Latin America

The Miami Herald has an article about Mission Identity, the Venezuelan government's effort to expedite citizenship for immigrants, many of them poor (particularly from Colombia) and generally sympathetic to Hugo Chávez. At least according to Chávez opponents, the idea is to pack the upcoming municipal elections with pro-Chávez voters.

This made me think about how in Latin America the majority of immigrants are viewed as a problem for the right, regardless of where they are. In Chile, there is resistance from the right to allowing Chileans abroad to vote, because it is assumed they fled Pinochet and therefore will vote Concertación.

Even in the United States, Mexican immigrants vote overwhelmingly for the Democratic Party, which contributes even more to Republican restrictionism.

The Chilean case aside, most immigrants are moving to find better economic opportunities, and therefore are most open to political parties that are viewed as more attuned to the disadvantaged, which is far more likely to come from the left. This is a generalization (i.e. some people may well vote for other reasons) but I think it holds pretty well. There are plenty of right-leaning expats, but their relative numbers are much smaller. Governments tap them more for their resources than their votes.

Are there exceptions? A small plurality of Mexicans in the U.S. favored the PAN in the 2006 presidential election, but 40% favored no party, so I would argue this tells us more about apathy than real support for the right. For Mexico, allowing expats to vote has more to do with maintaining economic contacts--regardless of which party is in control--than with domestic partisan politics. Cuba is another exception because the legacies of the Castro dictatorship loom over everything else.

But is there a large immigrant community somewhere associated with the right?


Monday, November 17, 2008

Reading the tea leaves on immigration

There is a good analysis at New America Media about the prospects for immigration reform. Whether or not the Obama administration pursues reform may well hinge to a large degree on whether it can get the economy back on track, though it will also depend upon how much pressure comes up from civil society.

My hunch is that Obama will put the issue off, and that we won't see a legislative push in 2009. He does, however, need to look like he is taking action, so perhaps he will appoint a commission or something along those lines.

As the analysis notes, there are still actions he can take immediately. The most prominent is to end workplace raids, which he has called "publicity stunts." I expect them to stop, and given his past statements I also expect there will be a complete reappraisal of the border fence.


Latin American politics blogs

So it appears that Blogrolling is dead, victim of some hacker. Therefore at some point I will have to manually switch all the links to Blogger's new blogroll feature. I am not sure when I will make the time to do so. In the meantime, here are some blogs you might like.

My friend Claudio Fuentes at Flacso-Chile writes about generational change and politics in Chile (in Spanish).

At Latin American Thought they're talking about the Venezuelan municipal elections.

Lillie at Memory in Latin America discusses the amnesty idea floating around Peru.

Security in Latin America has a provocative map of the U.S.-Mexico border.

Thomas at The Latin American Post examines Bolivian politics.

Benjamin Gedan at Small State looks at the embrace of U.S. culture versus U.S. foreign policy in Latin America.

Richard Grabman at The Mex Files talks about the Mérida Initiative.


Sunday, November 16, 2008

Latinobarómetro 2008

If you haven't already, take a few minutes to look at the Latinobarómetro 2008. It is chock full of info. Much of it, in fact, speaks well of the state of democracy in the region these days.

I will take just one example--the growth of the center in Latin America. The percentage of people who self-identify as centrist is 42%, which has been growing steadily over the past 5-6 years. Meanwhile, the percentage that self-identify as "left" has remained steady and is currently at 17%. The growth of the center has come at the expense of the right (which is at 22%, versus 31% in 2001) and those who in the past either did not respond or said "don't know" or "none," which fell from 30% in 2002 to 19% now.

The right has clearly fallen from its heyday in the 1990s, particularly as disillusionment with economic reforms grew. The left took no such hit. There was, in fact, a shift to the left, but it really meant from the right to the center. The Latinobarómetro analysis is that the center is voting for candidates of the left, and consequently keeping those elected leaders relatively moderate. There is some really interesting research to be done on the erosion of the right.

Trivia: which country had the fewest to self-identify as "right"? Chile at 11%. Colombia, not surprisingly, had the highest (33%).


Saturday, November 15, 2008

Immigration and the media

The Brookings Institution has released an interesting study entitled, "A Report on the Media and the Immigration Debate." Its core finding is that the media, but especially new media, has been a major contributor to policy stalemate. Some key conclusions:

  • The media is crisis-driven, so the bulk of the attention is negative
  • Especially with the rise of talk radio, bloggers, etc. the opposing sides are very loud, while the middle (which favors a mix of policy options) has little voice. Part of their conclusion is that traditional newspapers handled the issue better, so that in the past compromise was more possible. I'm not sure I buy this causality, but it's an argument worth contemplating.
  • Thus, the public debate centers on extreme policy options (e.g. kicking out all undocumented immigrants) that will never be enacted
  • The narrative focuses on immigrants themselves, and very rarely the broader forces that bring them to the United States, so the bigger picture is rarely presented
Money quote: "The breathless, on-and-off coverage--more opera than ooze--has mischaracterized a massive demographic event that has developed over decades and mostly through legal channels. And at the same time, it has helped create contours in public opinion that have rendered the enactment of new immigration policies ever more elusive" (p. ix).


Friday, November 14, 2008

Noticias del sur

I've been meaning to point out an interesting site: Noticias del Sur. It links to a ton of articles on Latin American politics in addition to original articles, all of which are left of center. They are all in Spanish.

I've also been meaning to update my blogroll and call attention to a number of newer blogs on Latin American politics. I plan on doing that soon.


The hoax: Sarah Palin and NAFTA

It was a well-conceived hoax, just outrageous enough but just possibly believable enough: the idea that Sarah Palin did not know Africa was a continent and that she could not name the member countries of NAFTA. Credibility was enhanced by the fact that it was reported by Fox News.

But it is all untrue. The McCain adviser is in fact fake, a fictional creation of a blogger, who also created a fake think tank the "adviser" belonged to. It seems all he did was email reporters, who then passed along what he wrote. It was then spread virally and mentioned by people like me further down the blog chain.

So my apologies to Sarah Palin, and to my readers. Even worse than being duped, now we once again know even less about her views on Latin America. I suppose that it doesn't matter much, or at least not for another 3-4 years.


Russell Crandall's The United States and Latin America after the Cold War

I read Russell Crandall's The United States and Latin America after the Cold War, which takes a novel approach. It begins with the idea that the Cold War is over, but many people--particularly policy makers--continue to view Latin America within its antiquated framework, especially in terms of emphasizing security to an exaggerated degree over other factors like domestic politics in the United States. He examines U.S.-Latin Americans from the dual lenses of "Anti-imperialists" and those from the "Establishment," and the novelty is Crandall's goal of explaining the arguments of the opposing sides at the same time. There are fourteen chapters, each taking a look at different general topics (democracy, security, etc.) and specific countries.

The distinction between the two viewpoints is not always quite so simple, which he acknowledges, but it is a reasonable point of departure. The chapters then explain a wide variety of agreements, disputes, interventions, diplomatic overtures, etc. while showing what sorts of argument (usually in counterpoise) each side offered in support or opposition. The focus on balance could make it useful for the classroom, though given how many issues it raises, one would need to fill in knowledge that is taken for granted or mentioned rather briefly.

He argues that especially in the post Cold War era, the realist school just cannot explain the mix of policy players and the influence of domestic concerns. With this I have no argument (I note the shortcoming of realism in my own book) but I did feel like the theme of power really kept popping up throughout the narrative (for example, multiple times he cites U.S. Ambassadors in different countries making threats about what will happen if the "wrong" candidate is elected--sometimes it backfired, but the threats were based on everyone knowing what the U.S. was capable of doing). Even though it is certainly true that the old style "Big Stick" is not always apparent, the imbalance of power is very often central to understanding U.S.-Latin American relations.

So then what is the next step conceptually? To my mind, an important question is how to address Crandall's main point about intermestic policy without rejecting the relevance of power. I don't have a great answer, but I would definitely like to see more conceptual development in the analysis of U.S.-Latin American relations that could provide a framework for explaining policy dynamics. Cuba is a perfect example--U.S. use of power is integral to understanding the relationship, yet Obama's change of tone has much more to do with evolving domestic constituencies than anything else.


Thursday, November 13, 2008

Fidel Castro and his legacy

Fidel has written a book: La Paz en Colombia (Peace in Colombia). It will apparently be available for download, but I don't see it anywhere yet.

As a hilariously approving review in Granma attests, the book has three objectives. The first is to examine Tirofijo, the second is to look at the role of the U.S., and the third is to discuss "the real nature of Cuba’s links with the Latin American revolutionary movements and its long and sustained contribution to the search for a just, realistic and humanitarian solution to the armed conflict that is bleeding Colombia." The Granma article suggests this will go beyond Colombia to include Nicaragua, Grenada, etc. In other words, to provide Fidel's own spin before he dies.

His spin, though, might well be a fascinating one. Of course, retired politicians usually pump out memoirs to get their story out--heck, even Fulgencio Batista did.


Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Venezuela and Russia

Mercopress discusses the latest on Russia and Venezuela, as they sign 15 cooperative agreements in a variety of industries. Dmitry Medvedev is expected to visit later this month. There are two things that really caught my attention:

First, one of the agreements is to set up a $4 billion development bank to finance projects in the two countries. The Bank of the South barely exists yet, and we need yet another development bank?

Second, Chávez said, "We have freed ourselves from Yankee imperialism" and then promptly seized a Canadian gold mining operation to transform it into a Russian joint venture. Since when are Canadians also Yankees?


Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The embargo and the Caribbean

The Financial Times has a story that comes up every once in a while, but is worth keeping in mind. There is much anticipation that Obama will liberalize relations with Cuba, and if he allows U.S. tourists to travel there, then the rest of the Caribbean will be hurt. Before Castro, Cuba was a very popular destination, and there is considerable pent-up demand. In short, people will go to Cuba rather than to other places.

About 1.4m people visit Cuba each year– compared with 1.5m for the Bahamas, 2m for Cancún, 2.3m for the Dominican Republic, 1.3m for Jamaica and 2.9m for Puerto Rico.

But Cuba is expected to receive as many as 3.5m American visitors alone if the US changes its policy.

John Rapley, of the Caribbean Policy Research Institute based in Jamaica, said that since Cuban tourism was mostly directed towards the lower end of the market, one solution was for other islands to develop a higher end product.


Simon Winchester's The Professor and the Madman

I read Simon Winchester's The Professor and the Madman because it was mentioned approvingly in Amman Shea's Reading the OED and it intrigued me. The upshot is that one of the major contributors to the original Oxford English Dictionary, Dr. W.C. Minor, was a brilliant medical doctor who also happened to be a paranoid schizophrenic and was therefore locked up in an insane asylum in England for murder. The book is primarily his story.

It is a fun and easy read, and so I've put it on the side bar. And as I read, it began to dawn on me that the OED was very much like an old version of Wikipedia. I never gave dictionaries much thought before, but obviously constructing one is a massive job. So what the editor--James Murray at Oxford--did was to advertise for volunteers. You would learn what particular needs the editors had in terms of quoting words in context (especially finding the first written use of a word) and then send in slips of paper: "The more quotation slips that came in to the iron shed he had built in Mill Hill, the better: He assured readers that he had an ample supply of assistants to sort them, and that his floors had been especially strengthened to hold them" (p. 135).

So what we now see as a venerable institution was in fact the result of thousands of people sending in quotations that they believed best fit a word. Since it was all by mail, they were as anonymous as they wished to be--in fact, Murray did not know for years that one of his most prolific contributors was locked up, believed people entered his room at night through spaces in the floor, and eventually even castrated himself.

Not that the comparison should be taken too far, because unlike Wikipedia the OED did have an editor with the final say on everything. Yet there is something to be said for the collaborative nature of both projects, and how very large public interest and participation made them possible.


Monday, November 10, 2008

The never-ending saga of the border fence

The Department of Homeland Security has stopped bothering to pretend it is building the border fence in Texas, instead handing off the issue to the Obama administration. Only 3.3 miles out of 110 planned for Texas had even been built up to this point. With any luck, the same will play out along the rest of the border.

Obama has said some fence might be necessary, but that it would only be built after consultation and agreement with local authorities, which are most often against it. So hopefully some common sense will be injected into the situation.

However, this does not necessarily mean reform. Tom Barry at The Center for International Policy (who writes the blog Border Lines) notes that Rahm Emmanuel supports reform in principle, but deems it a "third rail" and so will likely try to convince Obama not to pursue it. I would also add that immigration is never listed as higher than third or fourth in a list of issues voters are most concerned about--the economy and Iraq dominate the agenda.


Saturday, November 08, 2008

Inflation in Latin America

Two days ago I mentioned the rise of inflation in Chile, and now we have news that Mexico's inflation has reached a 7 year high (though 5.8% is no crisis). Brazil is at a three year high. In the Chile post, I brought up the point that especially given a drop in oil prices and slowing consumer demand, inflation was not likely to continue rising. On the other hand, we don't want it to drop too much.

In fact, the buzzword for Europe and Japan is deflation, and it is causing great concern because it means there is little money in the economy and consumers just aren't buying.

We therefore have a situation where, given the global outlook, Latin America's mild inflation might be enviable, at least for now. However, we need to emphasize mild, because Venezuela's inflation rate is about 25%, and 35% in Caracas, and that will cause problems.


Friday, November 07, 2008

Obama and policy toward Venezuela

I highly recommend reading the memo Francisco Toro and Juan Cristobal Nagel (at Caracas Chronicles) wrote to Obama about Venezuela policy options.


"Only" in America?

As I've watched and listened to U.S. media commentary, especially after the election, something has nagged at me. This has indeed been an historic election, but in the United States we try to claim that we are the first to have historic elections. It can happen, we say, "only in America." I don't have links, but heard it from both Chris Matthews and Chris Wallace--if you google "obama only in america," you can get a feel for how broad the sentiment is.

In Latin America, I think of Evo Morales' impressively large victory in Bolivia in 2005, followed shortly by Michelle Bachelet's in Chile (remember that the U.S. has not yet elected a woman, unlike many other countries). What of Alberto Fujimori's 1990 election in Peru (will we see an Asian elected president of the United States?)? Or if we look at class, rather than race, there is no doubt that Lula's election in Brazil changed history--imagine an uneducated union activist running for president here.

It is truly remarkable that our president-elect is African American, and it says a lot about the progress being made in this country. But let us savor it without pretending that we're the only ones who have made such progress.


Thursday, November 06, 2008

Another election post-mortem: Sarah Palin and NAFTA

In August, I wrote a post about how no one knew anything about Sarah Palin's views on Latin America. Our ignorance on the topic is reflected in the fact that my two posts about her are the first to come up when googling "sarah palin latin america," and all I wrote was that we knew nothing.

Now we have a little more info. According to Fox News (via Foreign Policy's blog), Palin could not name the countries in NAFTA. She also apparently believed that Africa was a country.


Inflation in Chile

Chile's rate of inflation rose to the highest level in 14 years, so that in October consumer prices were 9.9% higher than in October 2007. We've often heard that the price of oil is a critical (though certainly not the only) factor in inflation across Latin America, as transportation costs grew dramatically. Yet currently oil prices have fallen to just over $60 a barrel.

An obvious question, then, is how long it will take for consumer prices to reflect at least some of that drop. Plus, consumer demand in Chile is also slowing, so something has to give. I would assume a similar dynamic is playing out across the region.


Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Obama and Latin America: election post mortem

Barack Obama ran on a platform of change, and so in the coming weeks we'll see if there is any sign of change in U.S. policies toward Latin America. For example, appointments to key Latin America posts will be indicative. However, the president-elect has truly massive problems on his plate, and thus it is doubtful that Latin America will occupy much of his time (which, indeed, raises the importance of those appointees, because they will wield even more clout).

Once he takes office, I hope that he meets immediately with Mexican President Felipe Calderón. The Bush administration had slowly thawed relations after the disastrous decision to ice both Chile and Mexico for voting against use of force in Iraq in the UN, but we need more. I hope Obama shows commitment both to immigration reform and to addressing the drug-fuelled violence that is poisoning both sides of the border. Both issues require close coordination and as much trust as possible between the two governments.

There are, of course, many other challenges, and there is an opportunity for real change. Relations with Latin America have nowhere to go but up.


Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Elizabeth Dole

Fox News and NBC have called Elizabeth Dole's loss to Kay Hagan in the Senate. I hope that is true, given how horribly low Dole's ad campaign went, particularly against undocumented immigrants, not to mention the "godless" ad.


Trusting political parties

On this election day, it seems appropriate to discuss the relationship between the public and political parties. The Latin American Public Opinion Project at Vanderbilt University has published a new study entitled, "(Mis)Trust in Political Parties in Latin America." The upshot is that there isn't much trust. There is a lot of interesting stuff (such as the fact that the young, urban population is the least trusting) but given today I will highlight the comparative angle.

In the United States, we need to ask ourselves hard questions about our own democracy when only 32.4% of the population trusts political parties, which ranks us 14 out of 22 countries surveyed. In Venezuela, where Chávez has railed against parties for years, and which of course is usually labeled a dictatorship by U.S. politicians, the number is still higher (37.2%). In Mexico, it is higher yet (41.5%).

In the U.S., one result has been a rising number of independents/unaffiliated, as people lean in one ideological direction or another, but feel little connection to specific parties. Maybe U.S. parties ought to go talk to their counterparts in places like Chile and Uruguay (each at 41%), and ask how they maintain the trust of their citizens.


Monday, November 03, 2008

Obama at UNC Charlotte

I went to see Obama speak this evening at UNC Charlotte, along with 10,000-12,000 other people in rainy weather (though, fortunately, it stopped before he arrived). So it is exciting not only to have NC in play for the election, but also to have Obama come to my own university.

It was an upbeat crowd (even with the weather) and an upbeat speech, I assume the normal stump speech, though he noted the death of his grandmother, which happened early this morning. The positive tone was noticeable, as in fact he praised John McCain several times.

What's amazing is that 2.5 million people have voted in NC, so turnout is already 41 percent.


Obama and Chávez

Hugo Chávez says he is willing to meet Obama if he wins the election, which for Obama is dicey timing. Given the incessantly repeated "no preconditions" message from McCain, Obama's campaign issued a strongly worded statement in response:

Hugo Chavez does not govern democratically and relations between our countries will not improve unless Venezuela respects democracy and the rule of law. That is the clear message that Barack Obama will deliver to Venezuela as president.

I am not at all sure how an Obama administration would deal with Venezuela. However, these types of statements come up a lot, and always raise the same question--if democracy is the key precondition to good relations with the U.S., then how will we deal with China, Saudi Arabia, etc.? The answer, of course, is that democracy isn't the litmus test for anything.


Sunday, November 02, 2008

The Latin America paranoia round-up

I had happened to see various news stories recently, and realized they fit a pattern. Or is it paranoia if it happens to be true?

  • Alvaro Uribe says there are terrorists in his military
  • The Ecuadorian government says the CIA has infiltrated its military
  • The Nicaraguan government says some EU ambassadors want to overthrow Daniel Ortega
  • Hugo Chávez says Manuel Rosales is plotting to kill him
  • An official from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security says Latin America is chock full of Islamic extremists
  • Along the same lines, the U.S. and Colombian governments say Colombian narco-traffickers are funding Hizbullah (with the hilarious sentence, "Hizbullah officials were unavailable for comment.")
  • Evo Morales says the DEA is spying on him


Saturday, November 01, 2008

Violence and the U.S.-Mexico border

On October 14, the State Department issued a travel advisory for Mexico because of murders associated with drug cartels. It simply asked people to be aware and take common sense precautions. Now, however, my dad forwarded an advisory sent out by the administration of San Diego State University, the likes of which I don't ever remember seeing, given its specificity. It is aimed at people connected to the military (which in San Diego is a lot of people). Caps are in the original.


It is incredibly sad how drug-related violence has been sweeping through border towns. We need a binational solution that does not limit itself only to arming Mexican law enforcement.


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